Beth Ferguson

Beth Ferguson, visiting research scholar and Sol Desing Lab CEO, displays the inner workings of the solar charging station.

Photo Credit: Chris Foxx | Daily Texan Staff

Students may soon have a website to learn about how much energy the solar charging stations on campus produce, store and distribute. Sol Design Lab, which works to design energy-efficient products, designed the two solar charging stations already on campus and is working to create software to collect and communicate data about the stations. 

Beth Ferguson, visiting research scholar and CEO of Sol Design Lab, spoke with students Friday about the prospect of having new solar charging stations on campus. The new stations would boast several improvements, including a more affordable design and an app or digital screen that displays how much solar energy the station produces and devices use.

The two charging stations on campus are located at the intersection of 23rd Street and San Jacinto Boulevard and on the Perry-Castañeda Library Plaza. 

UT is one of the first schools to harness solar energy as a way for students to charge their personal portable devices. Ferguson, a UT alumna, said other universities have made attempts to do the same, but on a smaller scale.

“There’s probably little, small, off-the-grid solar projects, but definitely the biggest charging stations are here at UT-Austin,” Ferguson said. “There’s a couple companies that have solar umbrellas that are more portable, so I think this is one of the bigger systems.”

Since last summer, Ferguson has been collecting data showing how much sunlight the current stations absorb and produce. She will present the data in hopes of convincing the Green Fee Committee, which allocates funds for campus environmental projects, to continue funding the project so the data can be readily available to students and researchers.

Ferguson said the main challenge when trying to build a solar charging station is finding a location, since shaded areas hinder the production of solar energy.

“[We use] a solar pathfinder,” Ferguson said. “It’s a little, sort of plexiglass bubble calendar where you can chart where shade obstacles are. We had students from our workshops walk around the campus and find the sunniest locations.”

Biology sophomore Victor Lam said the solar charging stations have been beneficial, especially during on-campus events that attract large crowds.

“During one of the football games where we went out to the stations, we had chargers and everything, and I felt like a good number of people needed to charge their phones,” Lam said.

Lam said it would be worth finding additional location for students to charge their laptops while studying. 

Ferguson said one of the proposed locations for a new station would be in the West Mall in front of the Union, which would provide solar charging for a larger amount of students.

Biology junior Albert Lee, associate comics editor for The Daily Texan, said not many students use the charging stations but believes having them is an important step to reaching larger energy-conserving goals.

“In the end, it depends on what else we could do with the solar power besides charging,” Lee said. “Some people try to charge their cars, the big devices, and that’s not what these machines can do.”

Although the charging stations have limitations, Ferguson said they have opened other doors in the world of energy-efficient technology simply by their presence on campus. 

“I’m working with a vehicle share system of scooters, similar to the bike share fleet, that wants a charging station,” Ferguson said. “I’ll be working on that this summer, coming up with a station like this one. All this research has been really helpful for future collaborations that Sol Design Lab is doing.”

An earlier version of this article contained several factual errors. It has since been updated.

Stephanie Perrone (left), project manager of the Energy & Water Conservation Program, speaks to UT staff members at the solar panel charging station launch party Friday.

Photo Credit: Claire Schaper | Daily Texan Staff

Three organizations hosted a party Friday to promote their latest innovation: solar panel charging stations on campus.

At the party, the UT Green Fee Committee, Science Undergraduate Research Group and Sol Design Lab celebrated the installation of two solar charging stations intended to promote a greener environment on the University campus. According to Megan Archer, environmental science senior and Green Fee Committee student assistant, the project’s main goal is to inspire conversations about renewable energy, starting with the solar-powered charging station. Both charging stations, which were installed in June, provide 12 110-volt electrical outlets, six USB charging ports and Wi-Fi.

“This solar panel, for example, will still work and provide electricity if there is a blackout. That’s why solar itself is so important. We want to spark environmental initiative.”

In 2011, Archer collaborated on the project with Beth Ferguson, founder of Sol Design Lab. Ferguson, who graduated from the University with a master’s in design, first thought of the idea when she was a student.

“The idea of solar panel charging stations became my thesis project when I bought an electric scooter and had no place to charge it,” Ferguson said. “That was back in 2008.”

Ferguson provided the solar charging stations from her lab in San Francisco, but throughout every step of the process, UT students from different departments were involved in learning how to design with solar and fabrication model making.

“Basically there is a charge controller that acts as the ‘brain’ and is connected to solar panel and battery,” Ferguson said. “Then, the battery is connected to the inverter, and the inverter is connected to the outlet, which provides the DC power.”

The two stations are located near the Perry-Castañeda Library and the Art Building and Museum. At Friday’s party, which was held at the station near the Art Building and Museum, chemical engineering junior Eddie Zhan said he was impressed with the station’s wide range of capabilities.

“I learned it harnesses solar energy to create electricity and allows you to charge anything, [like] electric cars [and] phones,” Zhan said.

Ferguson will teach app-building workshops hosted by the University the next three Sundays.

“We actually did our first round two years ago where kids made solar charging station designs, but now these upcoming workshops will be focused on creating apps to promote the solar panel charging stations,” Ferguson said.

The University installed a solar-powered charging station outside the Art Building and Museum in June. The station can charge up to six cell phones, laptops or electrical bikes at a time.

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

After four years of preparation, the University installed two solar-powered charging stations, one outside the Perry-Castañeda Library and the other outside the Art Building and Museum, in June.

While other campuses such as Stanford University and Hampshire College have introduced similar charging stations, these stations are the first solar-powered, permanent fixtures on the UT campus. Powered through a roof composed of three solar panels, each station can charge up to six cell phones, laptops or electrical bikes at a time, among other electronics. Each station's six batteries allow users to charge their electronics at nighttime and on cloudy days.

The Green Fee Committee, an on-campus organization made up of students, faculty and staff members, decided in 2010 to fund the student proposal for the charging stations as part of its mission to support environmental-conscious campus initiatives. Karen Blaney, program coordinator of the Green Fee Committee, said while the stations may not significantly offset the use of fossil fuel-based energy on campus, they can teach students and community members about solar energy in an interactive way.

“It reminds people that solar energy is an option and that it’s a growing technology,” Blaney said.

During her freshman year, Megan Archer, environmental and biological sciences senior, pushed the original proposal for a solar-power project on campus as part of a class assignment with now-alumni Eric Swanson and Austin Jorn. She said her team originally had proposed solar panel roofs on University buildings, but budgetary restraints stood in the way. They decided to stick with their idea of solar-powered technology because they wanted to see solar energy on campus for the first time.

“We liked the idea of how restrictive [working with solar power] was,” Archer said. “UT didn’t have anything that was solar-powered then.”

Archer collaborated with Beth Ferguson, a UT alumna and founder of Sol Design Lab, a design company that has helped create solar charging stations at other universities, to rent a temporary charging station for the PCL plaza in 2012. During workshops, students in environmental science classes contributed ideas for the final model

During workshops, students in environmental science classes contributed ideas for the final model.

“Solar power is hard to understand, so we wanted the project to be hands-on,” Archer said. “We wanted students to have that hands-on experience with our solar station to create their own and modify [their stations] to meet their needs.”

With funding from the Green Fee Committee and the Science Undergraduate Research Group, the customized charging stations, which cost about $60,000 each, were constructed.

Nicholas Phillips, mechanical engineering senior and president of student group Engineers for a Sustainable World, said he hopes the demand for renewable energy products increases on campus.

“The main hindrance with renewable energy advancements is the lack of awareness of the current technologies that are available,” Phillips said in an email. “By having more projects on campus, we are making sustainability become a staple in our campus and by extensions our lives.”

The final phase of the charging station project will include a customized touch screen device, which will display the station's available stored energy, according to Blaney. Students are working on a mobile feature, such as a website or phone application, that will allow users to check the station's available energy, Blaney said.

The University will celebrate the installation of the charging stations on Sept. 19 outside the Art Building and Museum with a series of solar energy workshops.

UT alumna, Beth Ferguson, performs maintenance on the solar charging station outside of the Perry Castaneda Library. Ferguson founded The Sol Design Lab that installed the solar power charging station which can charge any number of electrical devices.

Photo Credit: Gabriella Belzer | Daily Texan Staff

Students on campus can now charge their electrical devices outside using solar energy without the hassle of trying to find an electrical outlet in or around a campus building.

The Sol Design Lab, founded by UT alumna Beth Ferguson, recently installed a solar power charging station in front of Perry-Castañeda Library for students to charge any electrical device, from a laptop to an electric scooter, in a sustainable manner. The idea to install the station was first proposed by three students to the Green Fee Committee, which funds environmental projects on campus, including the solar station.

This is the third solar station in Austin. The other two are located in East Austin and the South Congress area.

Ferguson said she got the idea for the solar station when she purchased an electric scooter as a graduate student.

“I had no place to charge it, and that’s when I had idea that UT could have a solar charging station,” Ferguson said.

In addition to designing the solar station to look like an old-fashioned gas pump station, Ferguson said she wanted the station to be conveniently structured for students.

“There are lots of students who use the outlets in the hallways where there aren’t tables or chairs, so I decided to add chairs and tables to my design along with the bike rack,” Ferguson said.

Environmental science senior Eric Swanson, one of the three students who proposed the solar station’s installation, said he wants to raise awareness about solar energy on campus and how it is great renewable source.

“We already have solar panels on a couple of roofs here on campus, but nothing that students can actually see and interact with,” Swanson said. “We placed it in front of the PCL because that area gets a lot of traffic, and the pump can also be moved around campus for certain events, such as football games.”

Swanson said the proposal also includes a plan to create an interdisciplinary course where students can design and build their own solar powered charging stations.

“It’s still in the works and probably won’t be implemented for a couple more years,” Swanson said. “However, we want to let students know that if this is something that they’re interested in, there is an option to learn more about solar energy and how it affects campus.”

The $5 green fee started in fall 2011 and will continue to be collected with each student’s tuition at the beginning of each semester until summer 2016, said Karen Blaney, sustainability operations assistant manager at the Office of Campus Planning and Facilities Management.

“Here on campus, students do have the power to show the school what their priorities are,” Blaney said. “The Green Fee Program comes into place to do that in the area of sustainability and the environment.”

Pre-nursing freshman Marlene Archila said she likes studying outside, so having somewhere where she can plug in her electrical devices outdoors has its benefits.

“I think you can kill two birds with one stone because [the solar station] is convenient and it’s good for the environment,” Archila said.

Printed on Tuesday, April 3, 2012 as: Texas alumna establishes solar charger